Restaurant closures ring White Rock alarm bells

A string of shutdowns along Marine Drive has residents worried about the area’s future

White Rock city Coun. David Chesney: real estate prices have put pressure on Marine Drive’s restaurant scene | Photo: Rob Kruyt

A string of restaurant closures along Marine Drive in White Rock in the past few months has the city looking to roll out an ambitious plan to revitalize the commercial hub.

City of White Rock Coun. David Chesney said as many as six restaurants, including the Sandpiper Pub and Pearl Bistro & Oyster Bar, have closed down recently. He said there are a number of contributing factors to the closures, but many local residents see land ownership as the main culprit.

Residential real estate has boomed in White Rock for decades as the average price for a detached home has risen to $1.49 million this year from $294,739 at the start of 2000. 

“I’m under the impression from what some people have told me that a lot of the commercial property along the waterfront has been bought by offshore investors,” said Chesney. “So they don’t care if it sits empty or it falls apart.”

White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin said the city is looking into why the Marine Drive restaurants have closed. He said an initial investigation was done in the wake of media reports about the first closure, in which the restaurant owner claimed his monthly rent had been increased by $500.

Baldwin said the property tax rate for that parcel of land had actually decreased in 2016 by $1,000.

“[The property owner] obviously is not giving [the restaurant owner] a break or reducing his rent as a reduction in property taxes,” said Baldwin. “So that’s an indicator that what Coun. Chesney is saying is probably true.”

Janet Wait is the owner of Jan’s on the Beach on Marine Drive close to the White Rock Pier. She agreed with Chesney’s assessment and noted that one of the strip’s long-standing restaurants has been vacant for a while.

“There are some overseas landlords that have raised the rents lately, but there are also some local landlords doing it too.”

Farnaz Farrokhi, the City of White Rock’s manager of communications and government relations, said $15 million will be spent this year on infrastructure to make the area more “attractive, inviting and accessible.”

The White Rock Business Improvement Association and the city have also struck a task force to look into the issue. A special meeting with the White Rock Chamber of Commerce has been set for February 28 to allow area businesses to voice their concerns over the closures.

“What White Rock is experiencing is not just a White Rock matter. It’s happening all across Metro Vancouver,” Farrokhi said. “Robson Street in downtown Vancouver is another example.”

The city plans to spend the infrastructure money on three main projects:

•a $4.5 million Memorial Park upgrade;

•a $9 million initiative to add 300 parking stalls close to the waterfront; and

•a plan to reintroduce free trolley service to the waterfront during the summer.

South Surrey-White Rock MP Dianne Watts pointed to a number of reasons for the restaurant closures.

She said the recent cold and snowy weather has exacerbated what is a cyclical issue. Watts added that parking has been an issue during summer months and noted that White Rock’s tax base is very small because the city only has approximately 20,000 people, and virtually all of its restaurants are along Marine Drive.

“It’s a very finite amount of land there,” she said. “And I know mayor and council have been working on balancing that out between residential and commercial.”

Fraser Valley Real Estate Board (FVREB) statistics show January was a return to the white-hot market for most of the region with South Surrey and White Rock leading the way, as sales rose above the 10-year average because of an intake of new inventory. Of the 976 sales processed in January across the region, 212 were townhouses and 276 were apartments, representing half of the market activity. This was coupled with 2,178 new listings in January, a massive 162% increase from December of last year.

Meanwhile commercial and industrial real estate, which the FVREB does not track, appears to be getting lost in the shuffle.

Commercial industrial business licences issued by the City of Surrey appear to have peaked in 2014, when 939 permits were issued. That number dropped in 2015 to 709, the city’s lowest total in five years.